In reality, Stephen McPhail’s career disappointments pale in comparison to the battles he has faced and overcome in his personal life but those who remember the bright-eyed youngster still think about what might have been in footballing terms alone.
The careers of talented players at Leeds United have too often been lived out in the imagination in the past decade and like many others who fall into that category, McPhail only shone in glimpses for Leeds, never truly a first-choice player before he left.
The expectation surrounding him was clear from the beginning with then manager George Graham calling him “the next Liam Brady” before he had made his first-team debut. That debut came against Leicester City in February 1998 and before long McPhail was making his mark, his sensational sweeping assist for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink against Derby later that year the sort of pass that only genuine ball-players have in their locker.
McPhail joined a first team full of youthful prospects but assistant manager Eddie Gray was always keen to point out the unique qualities McPhail possessed. When Gray managed him during Leeds’ relegation season, he described the midfielder as “one of the best passers in the game.”
Even in recent years, Gray has been keen to wax lyrical about what could have been for the former Republic of Ireland international.
“He can pass like a dream,” said Gray ahead of Cardiff’s crucial clash against Crystal Palace in 2012. “If Stephen had just another yard of pace he would have been as good as any player I have ever seen.”
Many still recall McPhail’s brace against Chelsea on a cold winter’s night in 1999 with great fondness. Aged 20, he bagged his first senior goal before curling in a free-kick from an impossible angle.
McPhail’s career at Leeds stuttered as a result of injuries and David O’Leary’s spend-happy approach consistently blocked his route back into the first team after the likes of David Batty, Eirik Bakke and Olivier Dacourt arrived.
Loan spells at Millwall and Nottingham Forest followed before the youngster departed permanently to Barnsley. It was with Cardiff, however, that he has spent the majority of his career, making 190 appearances in a seven-year spell before joining Sheffield Wednesday this summer.
Cardiff as McPhail found them were consistent challengers for promotion from the Championship but always found themselves falling short for one reason or another.
Whilst in Wales, McPhail was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a strong challenge that he overcame. He returned to the game only a few months later, showing his strength of character.
Whilst McPhail found himself on the fringes of the Cardiff first team in his last season with the club, it served as a nice coda that he finally featured in a promotion-winning squad, making a few cup appearances as Malky Mackay’s Cardiff won the league.
As for his time at Leeds, erstwhile Father Ted star Ardal O’Hanlon sums it up succinctly, saying that he “deserved a better chance.”